When it comes to sex discrimination, it is well established law that harassment based on gender is illegal. But what about harassment based on a person’s age? While there is extensive law regarding sexual harassment, age harassment is a relatively new subject for the courts, as illustrated by a recent case from here in Illinois.
This case involves a 54-year-old woman who worked in the information systems department of the Cook County Department of Corrections, which is part of the Cook County sheriff’s office. Over a period of several years, the woman claimed she was subject to sexual and age harassment by a coworker who later became her supervisor. With respect to the age harassment, she detailed a number of occasions where the supervisor made derogatory and vulgar jokes in front of coworkers based on her purportedly being “old.”
The woman eventually filed a complaint with the Cook County Human Rights Commission, which enforces the county’s Human Rights Ordinance. Similar to state and federal civil rights laws, the county ordinance bans all employees from engaging in sexual harassment or “unlawful discrimination” based on age. Following an investigation and formal hearing, the Commission ruled in favor of the woman and ordered the sheriff’s office to pay her $75,000 in damages related to emotional distress. The Commission further ordered the Department of Corrections to “adopt a policy making age harassment as defined under the Ordinance a violation of the DOC’s employment policies.”
The sheriff appealed the Commission’s order to an Illinois circuit court judge, who upheld the decision. The sheriff then appealed that decision to the Illinois First District Appellate Court. On May 20, a three-judge panel unanimously affirmed both the circuit court and Commission’s decision in favor of the employee. This decision applies to both the sexual harassment and age harassment suffered by the employee.
A key issue for the appellate court was determining whether the county ordinance’s blanket prohibition on “age discrimination” also covered age-based harassment. The sheriff argued the law should be read strictly to exclude harassment. The court disagreed with that interpretation. Noting there was no prior case law in Illinois addressing this subject, the appellate court here looked to a 1996 decision by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. In that case, the Sixth Circuit said that federal civil rights law-on which the Cook County ordinance here is modeled-clearly included “requiring people to work in a discriminatorily hostile or abusive environment” as a form of illegal employment discrimination. Applying that same principle here, the appellate court held, “Where an employee can prove that her age was used as a basis to create such a hostile work environment, she proves unlawful discrimination under the Ordinance.”
The First District’s decision is a landmark victory for workers who have been harassed or bullied by coworkers based on their age. If you have been a victim of age harassment, or any other type of hostile workplace conduct, you should speak with a qualified Roselle employment discrimination attorney who can help you fight for your rights. Contact the Law Office of Michael T. Smith if you would like to speak with a lawyer right away.